Friday, April 30, 2021

Three Days at Cottonwood Canyon

Oregon boasts a large number of wonderful state parks.  Over the 30-plus years of living here, I've visited quite a few.  But one had lingered on my bucket list for awhile - Cottonwood Canyon State Park.


Established in 2013, Cottonwood Canyon is Oregon's newest state park.  Located in the north-central portion of the state, it's area encompasses 8000 acres, giving Cottonwood Canyon the distinction of being the second largest state park in Oregon.  Located in a winding canyon along the John Day River, it's wide-open views and drier climate appeal to folks hoping to escape the rainy Willamette Valley.  

My cute cabin

I'd heard glowing reviews about Cottonwood Canyon SP.  The stunning scenery, abundant wildlife, and wild remote nature of the area appealed to me.  Several picturesque hiking trails had been established that I was eager to explore.  Also, I'd heard spring was a great time to visit, before the sweltering heat of summer.

Loved the custom signs

The only lodging at Cottonwood Canyon was a 21-site campground and four primitive cabins.  Since I wasn't keen on tent camping in the chilly spring, I'd tried to obtain a cabin reservation.  But with only four cabins total, competition was stiff.  I discovered securing a coveted cabin reservation was difficult, especially on the weekends.  Last year, I decided to take some vacation time and go during a weekday, and was finally successful. reservation was for late March.....right when COVID reared it's ugly head.  Unfortunately all camping reservations were cancelled and Oregon ended up closing all state parks from March through June.  It was looking as if I'd never get to visit this place!

Old barn

Fast forward to early 2021.  Most of the state parks now reopened, I decided to try again for a cabin.  Now retired, I had much more flexibility and could pick any weekday that might be open.  I found making a weekday reservation much easier (as long as one plans ahead a few months) and scored a cabin for two nights in mid-March.  Yeah!  Cottonwood Canyon, here I come!

Nice place to relax

Although on the map Cottonwood Canyon seemed a far distance from Portland, in reality the drive took just under three hours.  Climbing a high ridge above the town of Wasco, I was met with a bizarre sight - hundreds of modern wind turbines spinning and views of Mt Adams.  The last place I'd have cell reception, I then descended down a long, winding hill to the John Day River.  Turning into the park entrance I felt waves of excitement.  I was finally here!

Old corral with artwork

The parking area for cabin visitors was a short walk from the cabins, so the park had thoughtfully provided a metal wagon for each occupant to haul their gear.  Unloading was done quickly and painlessly.  Each cabin had a wildlife-themed name, after the predominant animals found at the park.  My assigned cabin was named the "Cliff Swallow."  And, let me tell you, I was blown away by how nice it was!  The cabin had two rooms, one with two bunk beds and a double bed.  The second room had a table and chairs, a futon, shelves and a rack to hang clothing, and an armoire with a mini fridge.  The cabin had electricity, heating, and air conditioning.  Outside each cabin had a picnic table and gas grill (cooking was not allowed inside).

More cool signage

After unpacking and admiring my home for the next two nights, I grabbed my sandwich and sat out on the covered porch, taking in the wide open spaces.  From my cabin's porch I had a great view of the river and surrounding canyon walls.  

Old homestead 

The only downside to the day - high winds were whipping through the area.  The winds were so strong and cold, I  had to bundle up when going outside.  But after so many years of trying to get here I wasn't about to let a little bad weather stop me from exploring!

Another view of the barn

The current state park property was the site of a former ranch.  Some of the ranch buildings had been left in place, and preserved for the public.  With camera in hand, I wandered around the old ranch, taking photos of the weathered, red barn and windmill.  Along one fence, an interpretive display had been created, explaining the history of the area, starting with the local Native American tribes.


The old ranch house had been converted into a visitor center, and the mask-wearing public were allowed inside.  I perused the brochures and photos on the wall and then headed back outdoors.  Not only did the state park have beautifully crafted metal and wood signs everywhere, there were also custom made log chairs outside the visitor center, if folks wanted to sit and relax.

Campground view from the ridge (my cabin is the one furthest to the left)

Across the road from the park sign, I spotted a trail heading up the adjacent slope.  Following it uphill I came to an overlook, complete with bench and flowering fruit tree.  The views from up here were wonderful.  I could see the entire ranch, campground, and four cabins in a row.

One of the nicest trailheads I've ever seen!

After a bit of exploring, it was time to check out one of the hiking trails.  After all, that's what I'd come here to do!  I was also hoping to catch some of the wildlife this park was famous for - most notably the bighorn sheep.  I walked through the campground to the trailhead for the Pinnacles Trail - and found one of the nicest trailhead signs I think I've ever seen.

John Day River

The Pinnacles Trail followed the north bank of the John Day River for 4.3 miles.  However, due to Golden Eagles nesting in the nearby cliffs, the trail was currently closed at mile 3.  No matter, there was plenty to see as I ambled along with the river on one side and tall rocky cliffs on the other.  Although I'd hoped to see some bighorn sheep on these cliffs, the blustery weather seemed to keep them away.

Rocky trail next to cliffs

I'd read that cliff swallows made their nests on these rocky crags.  On my return trip, I spotted a few of their empty nests stuck in the rock crevices.  No birds yet though - it apparently wasn't nesting season for them.  

Sticky weed

Funneled through the river's canyon, the wind absolutely howled.  It was bone-chilling and I'd donned my down jacket, knit hat and gloves.  The cloudy flat skies made terrible conditions for photography.  But, again, I'd traveled here to see the sights and no amount of bad weather was gonna stop me.

Sweeping river scenery

For mid-March I hadn't expected to see so much color from the vegetation.  The adjacent hillsides were beginning to turn green, and bushes along the John Day River's banks were a stunning orange-rust hue.  Dried grasses sported lovely shades of gold.

Colorful vegetation along the river

Being midweek, there weren't many people staying at Cottonwood Canyon SP.  I did encounter a couple of fisherman (apparently fly fishing is popular on the John Day River) and one group of hikers that included the camp host, who told me she'd seen bighorn sheep on the cliffs every day but today.  

View from the Pinnacles Trail

After hiking the Pinnacles Trail out and back from the Eagle closure, I logged about 7 miles.  Adding that to my earlier wanderings I was tuckered out.  I'd considered capturing sunset from the overlook, but the overcast skies didn't look promising.  So I returned to my cabin to heat up some soup for dinner.  

Amazing sunset my first night

Imagine my surprise when the skies later erupted in a blaze of orange, pink and blue!  And best, of all, I was able to capture it from my cabin's front door.  A great way to end my first day at Cottonwood Canyon.

I had another long hike planned for tomorrow, and hopefully I'd see those elusive bighorn sheep!  Coming in my next post......

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Central Oregon Snowshoe

My wintertime travels to Central Oregon have been almost exclusively for skiing.  However, from multiple trips between Bend and Mt Bachelor, I've passed several sno-parks and always had the desire to check out their trails.  But with limited weekend time, skiing had always taken precedence over hiking or snowshoeing.  That is, until this year.

Kim and I ready to hit the trail!

My friend Kim and I were trying to schedule another ski trip to Mt Bachelor.  However, this year in an attempt to limit crowds (COVID, you know) Mt Bachelor had instituted a parking reservation system.  When reservations had opened up in November, I'd been lucky enough to grab three weekends.  However, now wishing to ski a fourth weekend, we discovered all the Saturdays and Sundays in March solidly booked.

Off through the forest

What to do?  Noticing that parking spaces were available most weekdays, I asked Kim if she could spare a few vacation days.  When Kim confirmed she could take time off, I scored spots for Monday and Tuesday.  (Which turned out to be so much better than weekend days.  Way less people!)  But driving over on Saturday gave us an entire free day on Sunday.  I suggested to Kim that we check out a snowshoe trail.  Having never snowshoed before, Kim was a bit hesitant.  She didn't want to tire herself out and not be able to ski the next two days.  But when I promised I'd find an easy trail, she was all in.

Cute snowshoe trail marker

From many trips back and forth between Sunriver and Mt Bachelor I'd passed the Edison Sno-park and always wondered what was there.  For this reason it rose to the top of my list, and I searched the internet for information.  The digital highway is a wonderful thing - I quickly found a detailed trail map of the entire area.  It indicated lots of trails, separated for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling.  And I loved the electrically-themed trail names - High Voltage, AC/DC, Supercharger, Light Bulb Loop.  Despite all the cool names, I picked a trail unimaginatively called the "Short Loop."  But it was three miles total distance, perfect for a beginner.

My brother spies something!

So on a sunny, beautiful Sunday morning Kim and I met my brother at the Edison Sno-park.  My brother brought an extra pair of snowshoes for Kim so she didn't have to rent a pair.  I showed Kim how to put on her snowshoes, consulted the nearby trail map, and posed for a few photos.  Then we were on our way!

Edison Shelter

I wasn't sure what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised by the wonderful scenery along the Short Loop.  A thin coating of new snow covered everything, and it sparkled in the sun.  Huge ponderosa pines lined our path - their bark a lovely shade of reddish brown.  I was used to the dense forests around Mt Hood, so was appreciative of the large gaps between trees.  Enough to see the beautiful blue sky!  Although there wasn't any huge elevation gains, the path did have a few mellow ups and downs, traversing a bit of snow-covered lava rock.

Snack break at the shelter

Our destination was the Edison Shelter, about 1.5 miles from the parking area.  It was a cute log structure complete with covered porch and wood burning stove inside.  We were lucky and arrived just as another group was leaving, so had the place to ourselves!  (Even more desirable in these times of COVID).  

Heading back

The day's temperatures had warmed enough that there wasn't a need to huddle inside around the stove (and it wasn't burning anything either).  Instead my brother, Kim, and I sat on the porch and enjoyed a snack, while taking in the lovely forest scenery.

Huge ponderosa pines!

Hearing voices on the trail to the shelter was our cue it was time to get going.  So my brother, Kim and I packed up and retraced our steps back to the main "Short Loop" trail.  At the junction, there was a bit of discussion about which trail was the continuance of the loop.  After heading one direction my brother discovered a smiley face I'd earlier traced into a nearby snowbank, which clearly indicated we'd gone the wrong way.  So back to the junction we went, this time taking the correct trail. 

Final junction (and Kim is happy)

The loop continuance was just as wonderful.  More gigantic ponderosa pines and small snowy humps.  By now the temps were warm enough for the snow to stick, and my brother amused us by throwing snowballs up these small hills and watching them roll downhill while increasing in size. (Yes, I'll admit it, I'm easily entertained!)

Snowdrifts over lava rock piles

By the final trail junction, Kim was starting to tire.  She admitted that three miles might have been a bit ambitious for her first snowshoe outing.  But with only 3/4 mile left to go, we slowed down and made our breaks more frequent, so she toughed it out.

The trailhead is in sight!

As we approached the parking lot, our eyes were treated to a glimpse of nearby Mt Bachelor through the trees.  A wonderful surprise - and great way to end our day in the woods.  

Kim was such a trooper.  Although she was later sore from our outing it didn't stop her from skiing the next two days straight.  Kim even said she'd try another snowshoe trek!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Eagles Nest

Sorry about my long absence from blogland.  I've been having too much fun enjoying my retirement freedom!  I'd rather be skiing or hiking than sitting at the computer recapping my adventures.  So everyone knows I haven't totally disappeared, here's a quick post about an eagles nest I had the good fortune to photograph last week.

Eagle watching her nest (can you spot the eaglet?)

It's well known that every year a pair of bald eagles nest in a lone pine tree at Central Oregon's Smith Rock State Park.  In late March their babies are born.  My neighbor Cheri has been travelling here annually to photograph the young eaglets.

Dinner time!

Last week I happened to be in Bend for a week of skiing.  Taking a break from the slopes due to high winds, I met Cheri and her friend at Smith Rock one day to check out the eagles nest.

Mama feeding her eaglets

I'd recently purchased a new camera - the Canon R6.  And I was also lucky enough to score a used 800mm RF lens.  Time to put my new equipment to work!

Sibling quarrel

We three ladies set up on the cliff rim overlooking the nest.  At first, the mother eagle (I think it was the mother anyway) just sat near the nest and we only got brief glimpses of the eaglet's heads peeking out.  But after a half hour, the mother flew away, and returned shortly with a squirrel in her talons.  Then the action began!

Feeding time for Junior

We watched mesmerized as the mother eagle tore up her catch and began offering pieces of it to her two eaglets.  The eaglets, heeding the call of the dinner bell, emerged from the nest and we could see their bodies fully.  The two babies jockeyed for their mother's beak, opening up their mouths in preparation to be fed.  It was an amazing sight to see.

"Hey, I want some of that!"

The little eaglet's clumsy moves were fun to watch.  They were about 4 weeks old at the time, with oversized beaks and feet in proportion to their fuzzy gray bodies.  The eaglets jostled for feeding position, pecked at each other, and tried to grab food from their sibling.  I spent an enjoyable couple of hours watching their antics.  And my new camera setup?  As you can see, it worked fabulously.

Iconic Smith Rock SP view

Eagle watching done, of course I couldn't leave Smith Rock State Park without capturing a few images of it's stunning scenery.  A great morning well spent in one of Oregon's crown jewels.

Here's a great video that local photographer George Lepp made of the Smith Rock Eagles Nest:  Smith Rock Eagles Nest video.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Uphill from Timberline

To ski Mt Hood, it's all uphill from Timberline Lodge!

Amazing sunrise over Mt Hood

Well.....actually I'm not in good enough shape nor posses the skiing ability to summit 11,250 foot Mt Hood.  But I can ski up to the top lift at Timberline Ski Area, and that's a respectable 2,500 foot climb.

Sky color

The last Sunday in February I decided to do just that and invited my buddy Catherine to join me for the fun.  Catherine had recently purchased climbing skins for her cross country skis and wanted to try them out.

Hood peeping out of the clouds

Due to COVID, this year Timberline ski area limited crowds by closing their parking lots once they were full.  Rumor had it the lots filled fast on weekends, so I made Catherine get up extremely early and leave town at the ungodly hour of 5 am.  But the reward for our pre-dawn departure was witnessing an amazing sunrise over Mt Hood.

Illuminated cloud over Mt Hood

We arrived at Timberline so early we got a primo parking spot just steps from the day lodge.  Unfortunately, we also learned the hard way that the day lodge (where the bathrooms were located) didn't open until 7:30.  It was a long hour wait........

Timberline Lodge covered in snow

But Catherine and I busied ourselves with gear preparations (her) and second breakfast (me).  I also made a few treks over to the climber's parking lot, first to capture sunrise and then for some photos of the pretty post-dawn clouds over the mountain.

Ice-encased trees

But finally, gear prepped and bladders emptied, it was time to begin the day's journey!  I led Catherine to the beginning of Timberline's designated climber's route, beside majestic snow-covered Timberline Lodge.  After donning skis and backpacks I showed Catherine the finer points of shuffling uphill on climbing skins.

More white trees

For those who don't ski, uphill (aka backcountry) skiing has become wildly popular over the last few years.  Skiers attach pieces of heavy material to the underside of skis.  This material called "climbing skins" provides enough traction to enable uphill travel without sliding backwards.

Catherine trudging uphill

Most skiers use wide alpine-type skis for backcountry touring.  However, cross country skis also work.  Catherine had a pair of metal edged mountaineering Nordic skis and this was her first time using climbing skins.  Although her skis were much narrower she seemed to quickly get the hang of things.

Admiring the view

Today's weather was nothing short of spectacular.  The few sunrise clouds had drifted away leaving blue, sunny skies.  Snow had fallen the previous day combined with a bit of freezing rain, which left a sparkling winter wonderland.  Mt Hood gleamed in her white covering.  Nearby trees were coated with a thick layer of ice, their contorted shapes looking extremely artistic.  

Timberline Lodge seems sooo small now!

A few photos may have been taken by yours truly.......

Buddy photo 

I like to get creative with my selfies, and to get the above photo, I placed my camera on the ground, set the timer and then shuffled towards it.  I programmed my camera to take 5 shots, so it was fun to see the progressive images.

Lots of uphill skiers today

Unlike many ski resorts, Timberline allows uphill travel.  There are of course a few rules to follow, one being that uphill skiers need to stay off the groomed downhill ski trails.  Timberline has their snowcats plow a special road for climbers and uphill skiers.  The nice weather brought out many folks, most sliding uphill much faster than Catherine and I.

Step aside for the snowcat!

But we didn't mind in the least.  Catherine and I were having a grand time taking in the views.  Towards the south Mt Jefferson poked it's peak up above the clouds.  One of Timberline's snowcats came trucking up and then back down, forcing everyone to the side of the road.  You learn fast, the snowcat always has the right of way!

Catherine poses with Mt Jefferson

Although we'd originally planned to skin all the way up to the top of the Palmer, Timberline's highest lift, icy snow conditions made us reconsider.  That and Catherine was having traction problems.  Her narrow climbing skins didn't cover the entire ski bottom causing her to slip a bit.

Ice covered Silcox Hut

So our plans changed - we decided to turn around at the top of the Magic Mile lift, about one mile and 1000 feet up from Timberline Lodge.  I deemed this far enough for a first-timer.

Snowcat transporting people from the Silcox Hut

At the same elevation as the top of the Magic Mile is a small building called the Silcox Hut.  A rustic lodge built in 1939 by the WPA, this building originally housed the Magic Mile Chairlift's upper bullwheel.  This building was also intended as a warming hut and starting point for climbers.  After the Magic Mile chairlift was relocated in 1962, the lodge became abandoned and fell into disrepair.  Silcox Hut was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and an organization created to restore the lodge.  Present day it is rented out as an overnight facility to groups of up to 24 people and also used for day use activities such as weddings. 

Roof of Silcox Hut coated in ice

Catherine and I approached the ice-covered Silcox Hut.  Despite COVID, we were surprised to see a group of overnight guests exiting and boarding a waiting snowcat (access to this lodge is either by human power or snowcat).  

At 6,950 feet this wide open, above-treeline portion of Mt Hood sees lots of extreme weather.  It was evidenced by the thick coating of ice and wind-packed snow on the building.  Sure made for some cool photo ops!

Magic Mile and Palmer Lift houses

Our final leg of the day's journey took Catherine and I over to the top of the Magic Mile Lift and bottom of the Palmer Lift.  Both lift buildings stood silent, disabled by the previous day's snow and ice storm.  A thick layer of ice coated the lift towers and cables, which would take the ski area maintenance staff a couple of days to completely clear off.  

Ice encrusted Palmer ski lift

Now it was time to remove our climbing skins and ski back down!  

Catherine smiles as she removes her climbing skins

Since Timberline wasn't running the Magic Mile lift that day, the slopes hadn't been groomed.  So Catherine and I had to do our best "survival skiing" down a bumpy, icy snowcat track.  Although she had really skinny cross country skis, Catherine did great!  We both survived our very quick downhill trip.  (We spent about an hour and a half climbing up and a mere 20 minutes skiing back down.)

The ski down over a bumpy cat track

Yes, some folks will say that's a lot of work for only one downhill ski trip.  But I personally enjoy the uphill journey.  It's fun to take in the scenery at a slower pace.  I can have a good conversation and catch up with my friend.  Plus it's great exercise.

Another spectacular (uphill) day on Mt Hood!